Alabama stuck to its familiar script in taking care of the Florida Gators in yesterday's SEC Championship Game, winning by a final score of 29-15. The offensive game plan was simple: Play close to the vest, avoid costly mistakes, and allow the defense to win the game. By the end of the night, Alabama had held the ball for nearly three quarters of the game, Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry had more yards than the entire Florida team, and the Tide won in reasonably comfortable fashion.
The passing game, and offense as a whole, looked rough early in this one against a talented and salty Florida defense. The Tide was fortunate to avoid disaster in the first quarter as Jake Coker was drilled by a free runner and lost the football, which commenced to roll several yards toward Alabama's own end zone. To his credit, Jake hustled to the ball and covered it, but that sack was on him as much as anyone as he was caught staring down a receiver and failed to "feel" the rush. I'm sure he felt the hit though - that was a shot. Jake took several good sticks in this game, getting up off the turf a little slowly in a couple of instances. In general, however, he epitomized the spirit of this team: in the face of adversity, he dug down, kept competing, and ended up completing two long passes that ultimately provided two of the Tide's three touchdowns.
Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart were on the receiving end of those two long balls, with each making a spectacular catch despite the presence of two defenders in the area. Stewart's grab was particularly impressive as he went up high to grab it over future first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves III. Coker did a great job escaping pressure on that play as well, buying time then throwing a nice ball that only Stewart could reach. Ridley and Stewart stepped up in a big way, particularly in the jet sweep and hitch game that aids in spreading the defense out horizontally so that Henry can do his work inside. It was hardly a flawless performance in the passing game, but it was once again efficient. Bowl practice may well do wonders for this part of the game as Coker will finally have the opportunity for extended practice with the receivers as the unquestioned starter.
As far as the running game goes, what more can be said about Derrick Henry? Watching him in the post-game press conference, he is an example of what you want the "face of the franchise" to be. He is humble, has a legendary work ethic, and seems genuinely appreciative of the gifts he has been given and for the contributions of his coaches and teammates. Some folks nationally have criticized his Heisman candidacy by citing the number of carries he has received, but that is exactly why he exemplifies what a Heisman winner should be. Derrick totes the ball between the tackles and takes a beating, doling out plenty of punishment along the way, then lines back up and does it again, time after time. In an era of flashy, finesse football, he is a throwback to a time when people appreciated brutal, physical play. That Henry's body is able to hold up after the number of hits it has taken in the last few weeks is incredible and proves that he won this Heisman in the weight room. He is a unique player that will be sorely missed when he is gone, and will surely be an Alabama legend forever. It was also great to see Kenyan Drake out there making a contribution, cast and all. No way the senior was missing this one if there was any option whatsoever.
Defensively, the team did an outstanding job of sucking the life out of the anemic Florida offense, but did have a few coverage busts that allowed guys to roam free in the secondary. There must have been a pre-game arrangement with Gators backup TE DeAndre Goolsby in particular, with Alabama agreeing not to cover him when he entered the game. Treon Harris missed Goolsby twice when Alabama had failed to cover him out of the backfield, one of which may well have been a long TD had he made the throw. Harris did make a couple of big plays with his arm, but in general the Tide pass rush and secondary took care of business as Harris completed only nine of his 24 attempts and threw one interception to Marlon Humphrey as Ryan Anderson applied pressure.
The running game for Florida was non-existent. Star RB Kelvin Taylor managed only eight yards on seven carries, and Florida managed only 23 as a team after sacks are deducted. The Gators were completely out-manned up front. Tim Williams continued to show off that speed rush he has perfected, getting to Harris a couple of times. Ryan Anderson looked fast coming off of the edge as well, and all of the Tide's interior linemen were immovable. When an offense is made one-dimensional, and that dimension is a passing game that completes 35%, odds are that points are going to be scarce.
Special teams made some nice plays in this one, scoring the first points of the game on a blocked punt for a safety and blocking a field goal as well. JK Scott looked like his old self, averaging over 50 yards per punt with a long of 59 and downing five of his six tries inside the 20. Unfortunately, the 59 yarder was returned for a TD as Scott out-kicked his coverage a bit. Adam Griffith had another solid day kicking off and converted two-of-three field goals. The miss was a chip-shot that he pushed to the right, but he continues to kick the ball confidently and appears to be a net strength at this point. Tony Brown incurred the wrath of Saban by earning a block-in-the-back penalty that was unnecessary and negated a nice punt return by Cyrus Jones.
There were some tense moments in this one to be sure, first when the Tide fell behind on the punt return then followed that up with an uncharacteristic Henry fumble shortly thereafter. Robinsons A'Shawn and Cameron each provided scary moments as they suffered first-half injuries, though both played in the second half. In general, the Tide had pretty decent injury luck this season and should go into the semi-final game reasonably healthy.
Saban said after the game that he is more proud of this bunch for accomplishing its goals than perhaps any of his other teams. This is a team that isn't capable of lighting up the scoreboard the way that some of the offenses do - they have to keep grinding and slowly choke the life out of the opponent. For an Alabama fan, it is a beautiful thing to watch. We will find out today who Alabama faces in the first round of the playoffs. As long as Henry and that defensive front are leading the way, I like their chances.